A pair of queer booklovers have opened what might be the only LGBT bookstore in Mississippi.
At the beginning of October, Jaime Harker and Ellis Starkey launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $5,000 toward opening a queer feminist bookstore in Water Valley, about 140 miles from Jackson. It felt like a long shot—even Barnes & Noble is having trouble competing with online giant Amazon—but they hit their goal after just four days.
By the end of the month, they’d raised more than $8,000. By December, Violet Valley Bookstore was open for business.
“This is a state that is largely rural, where many queer kids don’t know any out gay people,” Harker, an English professor at the University of Mississippi, tells NewNowNext, “and the only public messages they hear are negative voices from pulpits and state officials.”
The university isn’t far from the shop, and Harker, who also runs Ole Miss’ Women and Gender Studies Center, hopes to serve the local literary community. You’ll find everything from academic journals to contemporary queer literature on the shelves, plus comic books, children’s titles, translations, and classics like Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. The main priority, she says, is creating a welcoming space for the local LGBT community.
Mississippi ranks among the worst states for LGBT rights: Harker says HB 1523, a sweeping anti-LGBT religious-freedom bill that went into effect in October, has made many LGBT residents feeling unsafe.
“We wanted to do something to let all the people who feel different in this state know there is a place for them, that they they are important and valued,” says Harker.
That’s especially important in rural areas like Water Valley, which has fewer than 4,000 residents. “We live in a place where the rents are affordable and the need is high,” Harker says. Violet Valley is housed in a tiny retail space that was previously an art gallery. Harker owns a home nearby, and her wife is a chef at a restaurant across the street.
Although there’ve been some negative letters in the paper and a handful of “crazy rumors” about what they’ll be doing at the store, the response has been overwhelmingly positive: “I have received messages from folks from across the state and all over the country,” Harker shares. “Some tell me that they grew up LGBTQ in Mississippi, moved away, and are delighted to know that such a resource exists here.”
“Many young folks have offered to volunteer at the store,” she adds, “and a lesbian publisher is donating a box of books to help us get started.”
Currently, Violet Valley’s inventory is almost entirely donated, and supporters have also offered to donate office supplies. (The store is registered as a nonprofit, so contributions are tax deductible.) For now it’s only open Fridays and Saturdays, but they hope to extend the hours as business picks up.
“The outpouring of support and excitement has really let us know how necessary this bookstore is,” Harker says. “We hope other communities will see this and create their own inclusive spaces.”